Will Congress Reject the Administration’s New Plan to Dispose of Excess Plutonium?

May 5, 2016 | 7:00 am
Photo: Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Stephen Young
Senior Washington Representative

After several years and multiple studies, the Obama administration—led by the Department of Energy (DOE)—finally has a new plan to get rid of the excess plutonium generated by the U.S. nuclear weapons program: dilute the fissile material with non-radioactive materials and dispose of it in a geological repository.

This “dilute and dispose” (D&D) approach is a significant improvement over what has been the plan for more than a decade: mix the plutonium with uranium to produce mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for commercial nuclear reactors and dispose of the resulting spent fuel in a geological repository.

The facility that would produce the MOX nuclear fuel is under construction at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The United States has already spent some $4.5 billion for construction, and tens of billions of dollars more would be required to complete the project and dispose of the plutonium.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has long opposed the MOX program because putting plutonium in commercial nuclear fuel that would be shipped around the country greatly increases the vulnerability of this weapons-usable material to theft. The new D&D approach would be safer—as well as simpler, quicker, and likely far less expensive—than the current program.

Money Matters

The rising cost estimates that have dogged the MOX program have driven the Obama administration to look at alternative approaches. In 2002, the DOE estimated the full cost of the program at $5 billion (in constant 2015 dollars). In 2014, the GAO cited a 2013 DOE estimate of $24 billion, but then later in 2014 the DOE suggested a $30 billion life cycle cost. In early 2015, the Aerospace corporation, an independent consultant hired by the DOE, concluded the cost could be between $50 billion and $114 billion (!?!) in constant dollars.

The most recent look at alternatives for disposing of plutonium, a Senate-mandated “Red Team” study led by Thom Mason of Oak Ridge National Lab, questioned the high end of that estimate. They found that the MOX program would cost $700-800 million per year and some 30 years to complete, while the D&D approach would require about $400 million per year over roughly the same period of time. Equally important, the Red Team noted that the MOX program has a “high level of technical complexity and risk” while the D&D approach is “relatively simple” and there is reason to believe the “political and regulatory risks could be successfully managed.”

Congress Gets Its Say

Unfortunately, Congress has yet to endorse the DOE’s new plan, at least not explicitly. The House Energy & Water appropriations subcommittee took the strongest position, soundly rejecting the DOE proposal to allocate $270 million for shutting down the MOX program. Instead it increased the allocation to $340 million and mandated that the money go toward continued construction of the MOX plant. The subcommittee did, however, authorize a National Academy of Sciences study to examine the dilute and dispose approach. Despite the plethora of existing studies, this is a reasonable idea. The Academy’s technical gravitas may help bring closure to the issue.

The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) also stipulated that construction of the MOX plant continue, but it offered the administration a waiver that would allow DOE to instead pursue the D&D alternative. The waiver, which is complicated but achievable, comprises a four-part submission to Congress:

  • a report on the status of the MOX program, which is already required by last year’s defense authorization bill;
  • a notification that DOE has “sought to enter into consultations” with its Russian counterpart on amending the US-Russian agreement that commits both countries to dispose of 34 tons of excess plutonium, a description of the consultations and the plan for completing them;
  • a DOE commitment to remove plutonium from South Carolina while ensuring the Savannah River Site will have a “sustainable future”; and
  • a notification that the prime contractor can’t or won’t agree to a fixed price construction contract to finish the MOX plant, or that an alternative exists that would cost roughly half that of the MOX program.

The fourth criterion reveals the committee’s underlying support for dropping the MOX program. As noted above, the Red Team report estimated that the D&D approach would “cost roughly half the cost of the MOX program”—just as the HASC requires.

On the Senate side, the Energy & Water appropriators decided to duck the issue. They announced that they would let the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), which writes the National Defense Authorization Act, decide the fate of the administration’s proposal. While they provided the $270 million in funding requested by the administration, they said not a word about what to do with the money.

We will not know what the SASC will do until after it releases its bill, which will not happen before mid-May. There are rumors that Sen. McCain, the Republican chair of the SASC and a long-time opponent of government waste, isn’t happy with the MOX program or the D&D alternative, as the price tag for either option is significantly greater than the early cost estimates for disposing of this excess plutonium. I would hope he recognizes that $400 million per year is a lot less than $800 million per year.

Problems to Address

Given the significant cost savings predicted for the dilute and dispose approach, as well as the reduced technical risk, why is Congress not jumping on the D&D bandwagon? There are four main reasons.

1) The only existing geological repository–the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) in New Mexico—has been shut down since 2014 when a single waste drum buried underground overheated and released small quantities of radioactive material. Prior to this shut down, WIPP had been operating for years as a disposal site for so-called “transuranic” waste, including plutonium diluted with other materials that is similar to the diluted plutonium that would be produced under the D&D plan.

The DOE hopes to resume partial operations at WIPP by the end of this year by moving at least one waste container temporarily stored above ground at the site to the excavated underground permanent storage area. However, fixing and enhancing the ventilation system at WIPP continues to be a challenge, and activists in New Mexico doubt the DOE will achieve its goal any time soon. The good news is that there is time, since under the new D&D plan DOE would not begin shipping diluted plutonium to WIPP until 2021 at the earliest.

2) Even if WIPP can be reopened, it is not certain that all of the 34 tons of plutonium declared excess to U.S. military needs will be able to fit in the currently allowed underground storage spaces. The volume of transuranic waste WIPP can accept is limited by the federal WIPP Land Withdrawal Act. My colleague Ed Lyman did an extensive analysis of options for storage at WIPP. Our current judgment is that it would be possible to emplace most, if not all, of the diluted plutonium at WIPP without changing the Land Withdrawal Act. The Red Team report also concluded there were “techniques for disposal efficiency” that might obviate the need to amend the law.However, the DOE is unwilling to state that all or most of the plutonium can be placed in WIPP (assuming it opens) until it does due diligence on required environmental reviews. So when the DOE discusses the D&D plan, it talks about “WIPP or a WIPP-like facility” as its preferred option for disposal.

3) Russia may object to the revised U.S. approach. As mentioned above, in 2000, the United States and Russia signed an agreement that committed each country to dispose of 34 tons of excess plutonium. In 2010, the agreement was altered to allow both Russia and the United States to modify the approaches they would take to dispose of their plutonium. The Obama administration correctly states that the United States can change its disposal approach without renegotiating the agreement, which allows for the parties to change their disposition methods, but both parties must consent to the new plan.

And the most recent signs from Moscow are not good, with President Putin criticizing the dilute and dispose option. A Russian spokesperson provided a reason for Putin’s objection, claiming that the new approach would still allow the plutonium to be used for a nuclear weapon. Specifically, the spokesperson asserted that, if the United States ever extracted the diluted material from the geological repository, because dilution does not change the plutonium’s “isotopic composition,” it would still be weapons-usable.However, the Russian argument is flawed. It is true that the plutonium could be recovered and used for nuclear weapons, but that would be the case even if the isotopic composition was changed. As my colleague Edwin Lyman and Frank von Hippel of Princeton University explain in this memo, changing the isotopic content of the plutonium would not pose a significant barrier to either the United States or Russia should they decide to reuse it in weapons.Nonetheless, as the memo explains, there is a straightforward way to simultaneously address Russia’s objection and help two U.S. allies, Japan and the United Kingdom. Both countries are looking for a path to dispose of their excess plutonium extracted from spent nuclear fuel. Mixing a small fraction of their plutonium with the plutonium from the U.S. weapons program would alleviate Russia’s concerns, while still leaving the D&D approach simpler and less expensive than the MOX plan.

4) The final problem the administration faces may be its greatest challenge, and that is the political support the pork-rich MOX program has generated, particularly in South Carolina. Senator Lindsey Graham has made extending the MOX program his highest goal, and has argued at every available opportunity, loudly and vociferously, against the administration’s new proposal. He has the support of other politicians in South Carolina, including some Democrats. They have two main goals: getting plutonium out of South Carolina (a reasonable proposition) while keeping federal tax dollars flowing into the state. The latter goal seems to have the higher priority.

As noted above, some $4.5 billion has already been invested in the MOX plant, and tens of billions more would be required to complete the project. However, as described above, the level of funding required to complete the MOX plant is more than Congress is willing to spend, particularly when a cheaper options is available. It is only a matter of time before the MOX project is abandoned.In that light, my colleague Ed Lyman has developed a proposal for an alternate use for the unfinished MOX building, and one that should be very attractive to in-state supporters. He suggests that the building could be used as a nuclear security center of excellence and international training center. As Ed notes, the MOX plant “is a nearly complete, industrial-scale building designed to meet stringent security requirements, making it an ideal site for a nuclear security training center that could help reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism and preserve the site’s economic value. Nuclear security forces from around the world could develop and test strategies at the MOX complex for defending sites from terrorist groups seeking to steal nuclear-weapons-usable materials or cause a radiological disaster via sabotage.”

In sum, there are solutions to the problems that the DOE faces in shifting to the dilute and dispose approach. They are not necessarily quick or easy, but they are still quicker and easier than the deeply flawed MOX approach. In the end, it may not be this year that Congress accepts the new plan, but the change is coming.

Featured photo: Geological salt beds at WIPP, Nuclear Regulatory Commission.